A tree is known by its fruit, as the old adage has it, and the recent appointment of Nitin Nohria as the tenth dean of the Harvard Business School signaled the university’s belated acknowledgement that the fruit of its B-School branch is rotten.
With 70,000 alumni in 161 countries, HBS boasts accurately that it has shaped the practice of business in every industry and country in the world. The school bears heavy responsibility for the global financial meltdown and the corporate culture that spawned it. About half of the thirty bankers summoned to the New York Federal Reserve in September 2008 to devise a rescue plan for Lehman Brothers were HBS graduates. HBS is not only a training ground for the elite and a model for other institutions, it is also the apex of a vast global industry dedicated to the teaching of business.
Nohria, who was born in India, making him the first dean of HBS from outside the Western Hemisphere, is an outspoken critic of management education and has been active in the promotion of business ethics for the past two decades. At a time when the degree has come to stand for “Masters of the Business Apocalypse,” he has argued for a managerial code of ethics, and led the controversial movement for the MBA Oath, a voluntary pledge that includes among other things a promise to “not advance my personal interests at the expense of my enterprise or society.”
Nohria says that his agenda as Dean will include “creating value before claiming value.” He’d like to see the school’s oft-stated mission to make a difference in the world expanded to include making a positive difference. Business, he believes, can be a “wonderfully noble” profession, and he hopes to restore society’s trust in business education.
Nohria is not the first dean to declare a major initiative to address misconduct in the corporate arena and cultivate the nobility of the MBA character. But I’m skeptical that he’ll succeed where previous deans have failed. Codes, oaths and curriculum changes won’t matter if HBS continues to deny the ethical flaws in the training of Harvard MBAs that nurture a culture of greed, rash decisions and disregard for the humanity of people in the workplace.
A realistic assessment of the outcome of an HBS education can be gleaned from the unforgettable comments of my business policy professor on our last day of class thirty years ago. Summing up he said, “We don’t teach business, we work on your minds. We don’t teach you how to be Harold Geneen; we teach you that you want to be Harold Geneen.” Geneen was a ruthless empire-builder who as president and CEO of ITT created the archetypal modern multinational conglomerate in the 1960–70s through 350 acquisitions. The professor’s summation was spot on. To become a Harvard MBA is transformational. It forges a new identity as a permanent member of the business elite.